Barbie who?

El Segundo-based Mattel Inc. took two major steps last week in its campaign to find new life and new revenue streams without its iconic but so-yesterday blonde.

First, the toy-making giant partnered with actress Julia Roberts to turn its American Girl doll characters into a feature film. Also in the partnership is Walden Media, publisher of the 11-book American Girl series, which has sold 111 million copies. The movie will be based on Kit Kittredge, the American Girl character who endures hardships growing up during the Great Depression.

Then, Mattel spent $230 million to acquire Hong-Kong based techno toy firm Radica and unveiled HyperScan, a hybrid video game device for the elusive eight- to 12-year-old segment.

"This new game system bridges the gap in gaming experiences for the 'tween' boy who has graduated from traditional plug & play games but is not quite ready for the mature content and expense of high-end video game consoles," said Cynthia Neiman, vice president of games and interactive marketing. "HyperScan gives them another option, offering kids a way to play collector card games and video games in one, with age-appropriate content."

HyperScan will retail for around $70, compared to the $250 price tag on Sony Corp.'s Playstation Portable or the Nintendo DS. Those devices are more complicated and fragile, and able to play games with graphic content.

Radica makes electronic games and other products including 20Q, Play TV and Girl Tech products. It is Mattel's first major acquisition since the late 1990s.

"The addition of Radica to the Mattel portfolio provides us the opportunity to partner our global brands with Radica's technological expertise to better participate in the burgeoning electronic toys arena, said Robert A. Eckert, Mattel's chairman and chief executive officer, in a press release.

Mattel has struggled with declining sales in its Barbie division for the past 11 quarters, but is riding high in the wake of a solid earnings report earlier this month. It reported second quarter earnings of $37 million, compared with a loss of $94 million in the year-earlier period. Revenue rose eight percent to $958 million, soundly exceeding analyst expectations.

Mattel is in a race with chief rival Hasbro Co. to add more tech products for young boys, as well as young girls, to dominate the electronic toy market.

While the feature film is a first for Mattel, American Girl characters have been on television before. American Girls Samantha and Felicity graced the small screen in 2004 and 2005 made-for-TV movies. Another American Girl movie, based on Molly, will air on the Disney Channel this fall.


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